Keifer Sutherland in an episode of "The Confession." (hulu.com )
Kiefer Sutherland, the star of "24," and John Hurt, the eminent British thespian, recently joined forces, playing opposite each other in "The Confession," a sort of short feature about a hit man and a priest. I say "sort of" because "The Confession" was created specifically to go online, in installments — there are 10 of them, averaging about seven minutes each; they ran from the end of March to the beginning of May on the video-streaming website Hulu. So it is a sort of television series as well, though one whose entire season lasts in the aggregate not much more than an hour.
"The Confession" is certainly one of the better and more ambitious dramas to have launched on the Internet, but that is, as of yet, an especially relative judgment. Written and directed by Brad Mirman, who penned the Sutherland-directed "Truth or Consequences, N.M." and the much-hooted-at Madonna film "Body of Evidence," it is talky in a theatrical mode — "That collar gives you power," hit man tells priest. "Without it you're just another man without a voice, a lonely man who thinks that breath mints and cologne will mask the scent of cheap Scotch and cigarettes" — and finishes with the sort of shock twist that writers were advised to employ back when popular magazines still ran short fiction. But neither star needs the work, and their willingness to get involved in the project is the most significant thing about it.
Whether the Internet is the future of television or not, it looks like the future, the place the future wants to be. As the spoiler that steals eyes from established media and mediums, it announces itself again and again as the game that must be played. Big-time entertainment companies want a piece of it, hoping to dominate an emerging market that none of them really understands — they do not even understand whether it is in fact an emerging market — even as outsider artist-citizens see it as a way to breach the thick walls of show business in the not entirely paradoxical hope of being themselves admitted to the establishment.
Comedy has done well on the Web, as anyone with an email or Facebook account must know. Humor is bite-sized — "Take my wife, please" — and doesn't need much context. It takes only a second for a man to slip on a banana peel, but if you want to know how the banana peel got there and where the man was going and what was distracting him from the danger dead ahead, that will take time. (And time is money.)
Comedians like to say that comedy is harder to play than drama, but good drama is harder to pull off online. Perhaps the small-packet, stop-and-go rhythms militate against it. There is no dramatic equivalent to such viral sensations as Funny or Die's "When Harry Met Sally 2" trailer, with Billy Crystal and Helen Mirren, or the Will Ferrell video featuring a toddler as his alcoholic, foul-mouthed landlord.
Nielsen research indicates a dip in TV ownership, in part because the younger set gets all the television it needs off computers. But even as these lines are breaking down, they reinforce the old model: If online comedy cuts loose in unexpected ways, most Web dramas still aspire to look like conventional movies or TV series, and most, being inferior to television, reaffirm the old medium's difference and dominance.
Nevertheless, as improving varieties of streaming media become an increasingly popular way to watch what once could be seen only on an actual television set or in a theater, distribution points such as Hulu have begun to act as networks or studios. (Hulu, which has just been up for sale, is actually owned in common by several of them.) Sony Pictures' Crackle has some of the Web's flashier offerings, including "The Bannen Way," with its wiseguy con-man hero, stylish split screens and hot-girl assassins; "Angel of Death," penned by comic-book writer Ed Brubaker, with Zoe Bell ("Tarantino's #1 stunt woman") as a hired killer who acquires the compulsion to kill her old masters; and the sci-fi "Trenches," picked up from Disney's now-defunct Stage 9 Digital, which sports impressive "Battlestar Galactica" special effects. All have completed their single seasons but remain available for download in the timelessness of the Web.